Our Common Interest: Climate Change and International Adaptation

By Rev. Jim Ball

Climate change is a natural disaster intensifier. It makes floods fiercer, hurricanes harsher, and droughts dryer. The one thing the world doesn’t need are more victims of natural disasters, like the father and his family during the 2005 Niger famine found hundreds of miles from the nearest feeding station “I’m wandering like a madman. I’m afraid we’ll all starve.” During the same famine mother lamented as she watched her young daughter die “As far as I’m concerned, God did not make us all equal. I mean, look at us all here. None of us has enough food.”

The reason such stories should not simply touch us as compassionate individuals but rouse us as nations and as an international community is because of the scale of the impacts, which have important economic and security implications. Billions will be adversely impacted, making it in our common interest to overcome the causes and consequences of climate change.

Given that these impacts will fall hardest on the poor in poor countries, those who have done least and yet will suffer the most, it should not surprise you that the Bible speaks to our responsibility to help them.

In several accounts in the Gospels people ask Jesus what is the greatest commandment in the Law. In effect, they were asking: if there is one thing our lives should be about, what is it? What is the most important thing in life?

Jesus quotes Dt 6:4–5, something that observant Jews of his time recited in the morning and in the evening: “ ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ ” (Mk 12:29–30). Jesus immediately says, “‘And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ ” (Mt 22:39, quoting Lev 19:18). To make things perfectly clear, Jesus adds: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Mt 22:40).

Why does Jesus add the second commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? He does so because you can’t love God unless you love your neighbor, because while God loves you, He loves your neighbor, too. These two commandments joined together by Jesus are what the Church has called The Great Commandments, and from a Christian perspective they are what our lives should be all about.

In the Gospel of Luke’s version of Jesus’ teaching of the Great Commandments, one of the experts in the law asks Jesus a follow up question: “‘And who is my neighbor?’” This sets up one of the most memorable and loved of Jesus’ stories, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

During Jesus’ time Samaritans were considered by Jews to be heretical, traitorous, half-breeds and were regarded with utter contempt. By having the Samaritan be the one who demonstrated love by his actions, Jesus in effect says that everyone is our neighbor – even or especially others we hold in contempt. And furthermore, those of us who think of ourselves as religious, as doing the right things to appease God and look righteous to others better think again.

Here is where this parable intersects with climate change.

The priest and the Levite were not the ones who robbed the man. , just like in our time we didn’t necessarily create the poverty of the poor, a situation that makes them much more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. But the priest and the Levite did pass by on the other side. Righteousness and love are the presence of good acts, not simply the absence of bad ones. By not helping the man in the ditch, the priest and the Levite made his plight worse and failed to love God.

Today, collectively, we are in fact making the plight of the poor worse through our contribution to climate change. And knowing their plight and not doing what we can to help to overcome it is like passing by on the other side – something no morally mature individual or nation can do. We must be Good Samaritans.

Part of rich nations acting like Good Samaritans when it comes to climate change is by providing sufficient funding and assistance to poor countries to help them do two things: (1) achieve sustainable and climate-friendly economic progress, and; (2) adapt to the consequences by helping them enhance resilience and reduce vulnerability to climate impacts.

There are two complementary and sometimes overlapping ways to achieve adaptation, to enhance resilience and reduce vulnerability. The first is achieved by realizing the poverty-reducing and democracy-increasing dimensions of freedom, something that traditional overseas development assistance (ODA) should be helping to foster. The second is achieved through projects, processes, and mechanisms designed in whole or in part to address climate impacts. Both are needed. Neither can be neglected. Funding to help poor countries both mitigate/abate and adapt needs to be new and additional in comparison to traditional overseas development assistance (ODA) as required by the Bali Action Plan.

That the rich countries have a moral responsibility and opportunity to help the poor ones grow in a climate-friendly manner and adapt to climate consequences there is no doubt. We have the means. Let us now summon the moral will to be Good Samaritans on climate change.

The Rev. Jim Ball, Ph.D., is Executive Vice President at EEN and author of Global Warming and the Risen LORD


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